If there was any doubt that disco was quickly gaining traction in America in 1974, witness two of the three chart-topping songs highlighted this week. And then check out “Seasons in the Sun” so we don’t have to again.
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#11: Gladys Knight & The Pips, “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” – #3 U.S.; #7 U.K.
David Lifton – Normally, the unambiguous ballad that tells a story over years is my least favorite type of song. Too often they sound like they were written to be First Dances. But the ability to deliver lyrics like these is why Gladys is so special.
Jack Feerick – I love the dynamic between Gladys and the Pips — the way that they can stay kind of cool and grounded even as she goes nuts, and the contrast works together to sell the song. Take away the Pips and Gladys is a risible old ham. Add the Pips — the most deadpan backing vocalists this side of the Velvet Underground — and the song becomes emotionally believable, even moving. It’s like alchemy.
David Medsker – I’m ashamed to say that this one only slightly rings a bell, when Gladys sings the song title. Love the wah-wah guitar and Knight’s voice. I need to get to know these guys better.
Jon Cummings – I didn’t much care for this song when I was 8 — too long-winded and meandering — and while I think better of it now, I still am not a big fan. I find the orchestration to be all over the place. The wah-wah guitar bubbles up and disappears, there’s precisely one harp flourish, the juxtaposition of the Carpenters-like string section with the Al Green-like rhythm section doesn’t work for me, etc. That’s all on the verses, though — the chorus is completely memorable.
#12: MFSB feat. The Three Degrees, “(TSOP) The Sound of Philadelphia” – #1 U.S.
Lifton – We miss you, Don.
Feerick – Famous to me as the theme to Soul Train: famous to my kids as the music from Chuzzle.
Medsker – This must have sounded positively groundbreaking when it was released. I mean that. Hearing this, I can understand why people were so excited about this new thing called disco. If they only knew about the policeman, Indian chief, construction worker, soldier, cowboy, and gimp that were a few years away…
Dunphy – This is a track that is wholly dependent on your memories of the times associated with it, and the things that associated themselves with the song. On its own it’s not super-remarkable. Easy on the ears? Without a doubt. But does it jump up and down and insist upon it’s own greatness? Not really. But when you’re a young kid, you’re hearing this song come over any number of sound systems (transistor radio at the beach? Car radio on a road trip? Roller rink?), and you know with Pavlovian instinct that something fun is around the corner. So TSOP is less about it’s inherent qualities than it’s associative qualities.
Cummings – “Soul traaaaaaaain, sooooooul train…” This is not the best big-hit disco instrumental, by a long shot — that would be “Machine Gun,” wouldn’t it? Followed by “Love’s Theme” and “A Fifth of Beethoven,” I think. But “TSOP” certainly has its merits, not the least of which is that it forces me to try out my Don Cornelius voice, which I used to do really well.
#13: Hues Corporation, “Rock the Boat” – #1 U.S., #6 U.K.
Lifton – An average R&B song that benefited from the times and became a great disco record.
Feerick – There’s nothing wrong with pop being light or even silly. This is both, and it’s a wonderful piece of work.
Are we sure that August Darnell wasn’t involved with this in some way? The verse melody has an elegance to it that brings his work irresistibly to mind.
Dunphy – It’s that bass and piano part that gets you with this song, not even so much the chorus which isn’t particularly hooky, to be honest. That combo playing underneath “So I’d like to know where you got the notion…” has a propulsion to it that sounds like dancing – two steps, forward, one step, back, and repeat. If I have any issue with it, it’s that I keep getting Hues Corporation mixed up with Cornelius Bros. and Sister Rose.
Medsker – There has to be a Philly connection with this band, right? I hear a strong connection with the Thom Bell thing in the strings and horns. The rhythm track has that great syncopated beat, though this is not a disco song; rather, it’s a Philly soul song with a twist. Big, big fan of this one.
Cummings – Here it is, one of my very favorite singles of all time. I just looked back on my personal list for the “Popdose 100” we did a few years ago, and this came in at #17 — but to be honest, I don’t know how it sunk that low. (There were several songs I put above it just to look cool, or with a strategy of getting them onto the omnibus list by placing them higher than I would if I were being entirely honest. I know you other guys who participated did the same thing, so don’t judge me.) Anyway, for many years (well into adulthood) if you asked me my very favorite song I’d quickly say “Rock the Boat,” without any flinch of uncertainty or guilt. As I’ve noted several times lately, ’74 was the year I became a cognizant fan of pop music, and the trinity of songs I call the “Rocks” — “Rock the Boat,” “Rock Me Gently” and “Rock Your Baby” — are the foundation on which my fandom was built.
Whatever else you say about it, there must be more tossed-off metaphor, simile and clever (too clever?) wordplay packed into the 3:11 of “Rock the Boat” than into any other pop single in history. If you had known my dad, you’d know that puns and other forms of wordplay were a hugely important part of his patois, and I inherited every bit of it. (That odd breeze you just felt was the flutter of my wife’s eyelids as she rolled her eyes back into her head.
Matthew Bolin – I’ve always gotten “Rock the Boat” and “Rock Your Baby” mixed up.
(1) They have similar titles.
(2) They were back to back #1s on the Billboard chart in July 1974.
(3) They actually kind of sound alike.
(4) Oh, and one of the songwriters of “Rock Your Baby” said they used “Rock the Boat” as a freaking partial basis for the other song.
#14: The Three Degrees, “When Will I See You Again” – #2 U.S., #1 U.K.; the first all-female group to hit #1 in the U.K. since the Supremes in 1964.
Lifton – The performances and production are a little too slick to really get at the emotional turmoil in the song, but it’s still a thing of beauty. Throughout this series we’ve talked about how much these songs are more of a reflection of the Silent Majority than the counterculture, and between this and “Touch Me In The Morning” a few weeks back we’re seeing how much the Sexual Revolution had made its way into mainstream America.
Feerick – For years I thought this was a Supremes song. In retrospect the hoo-oohs and haa-aahs are too overtly erotic or vulgar for the refined mainstream tastes of Berry Gordy, even if they are in three-part harmony. But what the Three Degrees do represent is a very successful updating of the Supremes’ aesthetic for the next generation.
Interesting, too, in how it shows that advances in recording technology influence the way musicians play. The groove is held down mostly in the hi-hats and congas; the clarity and nuance that make it work are only made possible by high-end multitrack recording, instrument isolation, and close-miking techniques. Just a decade earlier, it would scarcely have been audible — too much detail would have been lost. The technology makes it possible to cut a record that’s actually constructed around those fine details.
Dunphy – This is when disco was kicking in, but to be fair, this was before disco was the dreaded machine that kicks out a beat and a dozen numbing lines about dancing dancers dancing (to wit: Sister Sledge’s “He’s The Greatest Dancer” or Alicia Bridges’ “I Love The Night Life”). This was still pop music about love and loss, still had it’s feet in soul/r&b, and still could sound flat out awesome. It is a sound that would carry on to other one-hitters like A Taste of Honey with “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” but with all the faults we previously described. Hate the beater but not the beat.
Lifton – Right. As Jack said, this could have been a Supremes song. People who were more aware of it at the time say that the “Disco Sucks” movement was due to homophobia. My issues, with years to look at it, stem more from the de-emphasis of traditional songcraft and the removal of the social consciousness that had been such an important part of African American music for years. You can dance to “Move On Up” but you can’t be inspired by “Boogie Oogie Oogie.”
Dunphy – One song that I believe bucks the oncoming onslaught is Yvonne Elliman’s take on “If I Can’t Have You.” I hear it not as a disco song even if it is on the best-selling disco collection of all times. But you’re definitely right on the point that the emotional drive that fueled soul music, indeed the whole point of “soul,” was starting to fall away from the music and that is where a credible “disco sucks” argument should be insinuated.
While it should be plainly apparent to our learned readership what the value and depth of the term “soul” means, I’ll impart this anecdote I heard from my aunt last night. She and my uncle were living in a rough zone in the ’60s — Garfield Court. The race riots had come to town. Yet this young white couple had never had beef with their neighbors and even lent a hand to the elderly African American woman across the way. (Frequent readers of this column will recollect this is the same aunt and uncle who instilled in me my everlasting love for Al Green.)
My aunt comes home to find the letters “SB” spray-painted on their door, without explanations. She panicked, called my uncle and proceeded to start packing up. It seemed like they were being targeted. After all, in this black neighborhood, these two Catholic kids stuck out quite severely. The woman across the way somehow relayed the message to her not to worry. It would be alright. Why? Because she sent her grandson across the road to mark the door “SB,” or “Soul Brother.” This couple came into the neighborhood and responded like neighbors, without the degraded mentality of black or white; they were being helpful long before being helpful was a ploy to save one’s own ass.
Thus, soul is very much a sacred word. It is a word that binds, it is brotherhood, and it is a code of sorts. When you say that the worst of disco stripped the soul from the rhythm, you hit it right on the head. The sound stayed but the spirit died. Then again, isn’t that the killer of any viable music genre?
Lifton – That’s a great story. I’ve heard that, during the DC race riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination, similar markings were painted on the doors of black-owned businesses.
Medsker – Swoon. It doesn’t matter in the slightest that the girls in this band aren’t vocal powerhouses. If anything, the song is better because they’re not – the vocals fit the emotional core. That little “Haaaaaah, oooooooh” bit is catnip to me. Thank God this was recorded back when women were allowed – indeed, encouraged – not to overdo it and just sing the damn song. Can you imagine someone covering this today? They’d overdo it and completely miss the point.
Cummings – My wife eternally (and endearingly) refers to this song as “Precious Moments.” It’s one of her all-time faves, and it’s pretty damn wonderful. The heavy complement of strings succeeds here where it doesn’t on “Best Thing that Ever Happened.” Is it because they lend an air of elegance to a song that isn’t otherwise trying to accomplish too much? Anyway, speaking of Yvonne Elliman, sometimes I find myself confusing “Precious Moments” (sorry) with her version of “Hello Stranger.” Am I the only one?
I think it’s giving way too much credit to the “Disco Sucks” folks to suggest they hated disco because it misplaced the emotion (and human-derived rhythm) of soul- and funk-based dance music. Those folks might have said “disco has no soul,” but they didn’t want soul music — they wanted “Old Time Rock and Roll,” to quote Bob Seger’s worst song. If you look at the meatheads who rioted at Comiskey Park, they were the same kind of meatheads who protested busing and voted for Prop 13 and became Reagan Democrats — and they were the same sort of meatheads who, a generation later, would become birthers and join the Tea Party in response to Obama’s election. To them, disco was the province of people who were more stylish than they were, danced better than they did, and were in various ways the “other” in American culture. Whether they identified those people as gay or black or elitist or whatever, they had had enough of their white rock & roll playing second-fiddle to white suits and falsetto vocals and repetitive drum machines on the radio … just the same way that working-class white men had had enough of watching minorities get “special rights” by 1979, or 2009.
Or, I suppose, maybe “Boogie Oogie Oogie” and “Le Freak” and “Ring My Bell” and “Tragedy” were just a bridge too far. I get that, too.
Lifton – I’m saying that’s how I feel about it, not the “Disco Sucks” people. I’m sorry if I didn’t make that clear enough.
#15: First Class, “Beach Baby” – #4 U.S., #13 U.K.
Lifton – It’s like The Beach Boys for people who don’t like The Beach Boys!
Dunphy – It’s also like The Beach Boys for people who don’t like lyrics. This is a classic example of a song where if you don’t know the title of it, that wasn’t for lack of trying.
Four out of six this week are good odds, with “Beach Baby” and “Seasons In The Sun” really throwing off the love. I can handle “Beach Baby” just enough to remind myself that imitation is meant as flattery. It’s a dull imitation to be sure, but you get the impression they meant well by it. I think just repeating “Beach Baby” a whole stinking lot doesn’t constitute noble effort though.
As for “Seasons In The Sun,” well…!
Feerick – Tries to do for the Beach Boys what “When Will I See You Again” does for the Supremes — but while it’s relatively easy to imitate the rococo surfaces of Pet Sounds, the structural framework just isn’t there. Doesn’t even qualify as a guilty pleasure.
Medsker – Wiki says this was written in the summer of 1974. The Beach Boys’ Endless Summer came out in June 1974. Do the math.
Cummings – “Beach Baby” = “Kokomo.” I can’t think of anything more damning to say about this song. In fact, I can’t think of anything else to say about it at all. Except that the version on Have a Nice Day, volume whatever, is 5:03 long because it includes way too much faux-Brian Wilson noodling after the final sung chorus. And 5:03 of “Beach Baby” is about 5:00 too much.
#16: Terry Jacks, “Seasons in the Sun” – #1 U.S. and U.K.
Lifton – I can’t wait for Cummings to defend this piece of shit.
Feerick – Oh, boy. I’ve got a soft spot for Franco-Belgian chanson, and, you know, everybody loves Jacques Brel, right? But this is a classic case of “lost in translation.” Blame Rod McKuen for this one. Brel is a lot more caustic, and a lot less sentimental.
Certainly, the deathbed farewell of a libertine – and five will get you ten that it’s the syphilis what brought him low — can be the inspiration for great dramatic pop, from “Streets of Laredo” to the Threepenny Opera’s “Call from the Grave” to, hell, Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” But it shouldn’t sound so schlocky. Jacks has made the soundtrack for the most bummed-out Banana Splits episode ever, a bubblegum deathtrip.
Dunphy – This is just so much glop. It’s the audio equivalent of a chewed-up wad of gum left to go semi-viscous in the worst summer heat. It wants to attain the melancholy resonance of “It Was A Very Good Year,” and in my mind the song’s aims fail miserably here yet somehow are achieved a decade later with Alan Parsons Project’s “Old and Wise” (yeah, I went there). This is just a dumb, gumball pop tune that desperately wants to be something of intellectual import, but ends up being the campfire singalong from Lord of the Flies.
Medsker – This song made me sad as a child. Now that I’ve read the Wiki page about the song’s origins, and the lines that Jacks omitted about the dying protagonist forgiving his wife for her adultery, I feel like I just walked in on a conversation I was not meant to hear, and am trying to find a polite way to leave the room without making eye contact with anyone.
Cummings – Yes, Lifton, there is a Santa Claus! I don’t know quite where to go from Jack’s “bubblegum deathtrip” and Dunphy’s “campfire singalong from Lord of the Flies” — mark ’em, kids, those are two of the best phrases you’ll ever read on Popdose. (Taking off from Dunphy, it might be fun to hear Taylor Swift sing this on the next “Hunger Games” soundtrack.) In any case, I will add my two cents. Yep, “Seasons in the Sun” is another of those songs from ’74 whose castigation I can’t share, though I recognize its innate awfulness. It’s just got too formative a role in my childhood. It was the first pop single about death for which I was truly cognizant — having missed Laura Nyro/BS&T’s wonderful “And When I Die” by a few radio years — and to my ears at the time, Jacks’ whiny/childlike voice sounded not like Brel’s wizened Frenchman or McKuen’s jaded and effete intellectual, but like a teenager who’s Dying Young. And I distinctly remember listening repeatedly to a 45 of “Seasons in the Sun” and pondering what it would be like to be in that position — a young man who knows he’s about to die.
As with loads of other external stimuli (pop music, sports on TV, etc.), 1974 was the year my 8-year-old brain really began to process the fact of death … helped along by this song, a too-young reading of “Love Story” (one of many grown-up books that, simply because it was sitting around the house, I felt compelled to read before my 10th birthday), and, shortly thereafter, a friend’s contagious obsession with Hitler and WWII that I’ve previously discussed here. Yes, I was a morbid little fucker for a while there — and while my fortysomething brain can fully process the fact that “Seasons in the Sun” sucks, in all its various incarnations, my inner child (who apparently bears some resemblance to Wednesday Addams) will brook no criticism of it.
Lifton – This is why I’m glad I have no sense of nostalgia.
Dunphy – Dunphy’s “campfire singalong from ‘Lord of the Flies'”
And yet, no woman would have me.
Lifton – Dw., come here. I want to kiss you.
Dunphy – You’re only saying that because I complimented your recent Lefsetz column.
Lifton – Of course!
Beggars can’t be choosers, Dw.
Dunphy – God, I wish Terry Jacks had used any other song as an inspiration for “Seasons In The Sun.”